For Depression and Anxiety, the Mind and Body Must be Treated TogetherFor Depression and Anxiety, the Mind and Body Must be Treated Together

By Dr. Mao Shing Ni and J. Matthew Brand, L.Ac.

While people around the world are still mourning the sudden loss of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, a countless number of people suffer in miserable silence from depression, mental illness or an inability to cope with the stressors of everyday life. According to the World Health Organization, about 800,000 people die by suicide each year or one person every 40 seconds. While we don't know each individual's reasons that led to a decision to end their life, we do know that the effects are devastating.

Experts agree that poor mental health is associated with factors such as rapid social change, stressful work conditions, gender discrimination, social exclusion, unhealthy lifestyle, risk of violence, and poor physical health. More than 16 million American adults and over 3 million teens (one in five) suffer from at least one depressive episode every year. The numbers are certain to be higher when including people experiencing undiagnosed depression.

The current common approach to treatment for mental disorders is through medication, psychotherapy or a combination of the two. What is limiting is the perception that the mental and physical are distinct and separate. Compelling studies today are finding a strong physical component in mental disorders and a strong mental component in physical disorders. In other words, the mind and body are one and MUST be addressed together, as they are in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

While TCM has been taking this holistic approach for thousands of years, an increasing number of conventional doctors have also begun trying to integrate this mind-body approach and recognize the importance of using multiple therapies in the treatment of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation as well. TCM practitioners use many integrative therapies to address depression and anxiety, ranging from nutritional and herbal therapies to acupuncture, meditation, mind-body practices like Chi Gong and Tai Chi, and lifestyle counseling.

Diet and Nutrition

As a first line of treatment for depression and anxiety, we advocate diet and nutrition. Just as certain foods and nutrients may benefit our health, there are others that should be avoided. These include caffeine, which can interfere with sleep and may trigger anxiety; alcohol, which can increase the risk of panic attacks or depressive episodes; sugar and refined carbohydrates, which can cause energy crashes and mood swings; and oils such as corn and safflower oils, which are high in omega 6 fatty acids and are believed to promote inflammation in the brain, and possibly influence symptoms of depression.

Studies now confirm the significant role that diet and certain nutrients can play in alleviating depression and anxiety. Helpful nutrients and their sources include selenium (Brazil nuts), vitamin D (fish), omega 3 fatty acids (sardines, hemp and flax seeds), antioxidants (blueberries and grapes), B vitamins (leafy greens and whole grains). Other helpful nutrients are the trace mineral zinc (nuts, beans and oysters); tryptophan, an amino acid precursor to the neurochemical serotonin (turkey and chickpeas); and iodine, a mineral essential for healthy thyroid function (seaweed). In other words, eating a balanced diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds as well as seafood and poultry helps support a balanced mood.

The Role of the Microbiome

Emerging research has shown that gut bacteria plays an integral role in major mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder. A 2016 meta-analysis reported that probiotics, specifically Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium taken in both supplement form and in fermented foods such as yogurt and kefir, resulted in significant reductions in depression.

Mind-Body Practice and Exercise

Many studies have confirmed the benefits of Chi Gong and Tai Chi as forms of moving meditation for improving and maintaining positive mood. Sitting meditation has also been shown to improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, even to the point of completely eradicating them for 30 percent of subjects in some studies. Regular physical activity of at least 150 minutes weekly and spending time outdoors have also been shown to improve mood and alleviate symptoms of depression.

Sleep Your Way to a Better Mood

A majority of Americans are sleep-deprived, many reporting that they sleep less than six hours a night. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased levels of depression and anxiety. Not everyone is aware that electronic devices that emit blue light, such as smartphones, tablets and computers, may be making it harder for them to fall asleep because the light mimics daylight, preventing the brain from producing melatonin, serotonin and dopamine. The body's natural sleep cycle creates mood-altering chemicals to match the time of day. Altering this natural sleep cycle definitely affects how your mind and body will function.

Acupuncture and Herbal Therapy

For thousands of years Chinese medicine has effectively identified and treated people suffering from depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other mental conditions. Modern research has shown how acupuncture can increase the production of serotonin and dopamine, two neurochemicals responsible for positive mood and feelings of joy. Studies also confirm acupuncture's ability to block stress hormones such as cortisol that can lead to feeling stressed and agitated. Chinese herbal therapy utilizes herbs and synergistic formulations of herbs such as ginseng, albizia and biota, which have been found in studies to be beneficial for mood stabilizing.

We encourage patients to be their own best advocates and educate themselves about the therapies that we prescribe for them. While many antidepressants have helped and continue to help many people with mental disorders, researchers have found evidence that people taking antidepressant medications may be at a higher risk of suicide. For this reason, it's especially important to consult with your physician to assess what will work best for you.

If you suffer from a mental disorder, it's also important to have resources in case you feel out of control. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 at 800.273.8255. It's also helpful to educate yourself about how prevalent major depressive disorder (MDD) is, so that you know you are not alone. Check out the CDC's informative page on the subject: www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide


About the Author:

Emma Suttie is a practicing acupuncture physician and founder and editor of Chinese Medicine Living - a website dedicated to using traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She recently moved to the mountains of Costa Rica so she could pursue her lifelong dream of living in harmony with nature. She is in the process of designing curriculums to teach courses about Chinese Medicine online that will be available at learn.chinesemedicineliving.com so she can continue her mission to spread the wisdom of this wonderful medicine. She is married and has two small children.



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